Early indications suggest that when the 2020 census comes out, Alabama will lose one of its seven seats in the United States House of Representatives. That will mean one the state’s current members of Congress, six of whom are Republicans and one of whom is a Democrat, will be ceding their seat.
One district that is likely to remain intact is Alabama’s seventh congressional district, presently occupied by Rep. Terri Sewell, one of the state’s rare Democratic officials. For that district to elect a Democrat, its physical boundaries had to take an odd shape. The district’s perimeter has tentacles reaching into the predominantly African-American inner city neighborhoods of Birmingham and Montgomery.
That is what is known as “affirmative racial gerrymandering.” On paper, it seems like a very unnatural, forced way to create a voting constituency that would produce a majority-minority congressional district.
Without it, however, many of the African-American and Hispanic members could not get elected to Congress. Alabama’s seventh congressional district isn’t the only one of its kind. States across the country have gerrymandered districts.
This does have consequences. When officials draw boundaries to separate people, they are essentially creating political segregation and making the political leanings of each district farther away from the center of the spectrum. Of course, a district gerrymandered to include a heavy Democratic voting contingency will elect a Democrat. In fact, it seems unlikely that a Democrat could be elected in Alabama any other way.
Yet, it is Republicans who take the blame for the evils of gerrymandering.
In recent years, gerrymandering has been depicted as a sinister brainchild hatched in a laboratory run by Lee Atwater’s ghost and Karl Rove to disenfranchise minority voters and elect conservative extremists — who want to rob grandma of her Social Security to fund their fancy cigars and yachts.
This season’s “Saturday Night Live” even mentioned the evil art of gerrymandering during one of its cold opens. The Nov. 11 episode featured Roy Moore, played by Mikey Day, and Jeff Sessions, played by Kate McKinnon.
In the sketch, McKinnon’s Sessions pops out of a cabinet in Vice President Mike Pence’s office to urge Day’s Moore to drop out of the race. The pair discuss Moore’s alleged proclivity for dating underaged women, and the conversation ends with McKinnon’s Sessions telling Day’s Moore, “I’m Alabama, but you, sir, are too Alabama. Get out, get on — leave me to my gerrymandering.”
SNL’s depiction portrays gerrymandering as an evil misdeed that creepy Southern conservative caricatures cook up in the same kitchen they create their “nightmares for children.”
Although we’re led to believe it is a GOP plot to rig elections, progressive liberals would have the most to lose, particularly in Alabama, if gerrymandering were declared unconstitutional. The more radical liberal ideologues come from gerrymandered districts carved out of major metropolitan areas. If those were to go away, a left-wing voter base would be diluted.
Perhaps there is a political calculus involved in tagging conservatives as the champions of gerrymandering. If Democrats can portray Republicans as the masterminds of a system that makes possible predetermined outcomes, then they can reap the rewards while weaponizing it to use against their political opponents.
Gerrymandering is one of the culprits behind the current hyper-polarization of politics, and it is self-perpetuating. The voters in District A are overwhelmingly liberal, and the voters in District B are overwhelmingly conservative. The members representing each of those districts won’t be judged by how they get things done, work with one other or any of the other critiques you usually hear when people talk about what is wrong with Washington.
Those members are rewarded by how far they are willing to go and how outspoken they are willing to be. Instead of having a checklist of accomplishments to showcase on the campaign trail, they have to protect their flanks on the extreme ideological sides, and that pushes them further and further to the left or the right.
What you wind up having are members of Congress working toward Ayn Rand and Karl Marx instead of performing basic congressional duties such as passing a budget, raising the debt ceiling, funding the government, reauthorizing defense spending, etc.
That is why the federal government is under a constant threat of temporarily ceasing operations.
How do you correct this? There really isn’t a good answer. There are some ideas in which a computer could generate congressional district boundaries without accounting for race or ethnicity. The problem with that is it is likely to result in a loss of minority representation in Congress.
Gerrymandering is likely here to stay, barring some monumental shift in the Supreme Court. However, what is not true about gerrymandering is that it was devised to keep right-wing conservatives in power.
Certainly, Republicans benefit from gerrymandering. But be careful what you wish for because if gerrymandering ended tomorrow, the likely result would be a shift toward moderation, and those who adhere to certain dogmatic beliefs about government would find specific goals — be it socialized medicine on the left or a fair tax on the right, for example — unobtainable.